One of the most perplexing causes of insomnia is hyperarousal. Although the name might seem a little foreign to some people, it is simply a prolonged version of the stress response or the fight-or-flight response. Self-protection is the intended reason for the stress response.
When faced with danger, hyperarousal causes you to have heightened sensory response. Your heart and respiration rate goes up. You have a greater awareness of what’s around you. Your blood levels of stress hormones increase dramatically. You are ready for some real action.
This is all great if you are really facing danger and you need to make a life-or-death decision between fight or flight. It is certainly not something that you want, though, when it leads to chronic insomnia.
Hyperarousal is one of the leading causes of insomnia because its sole purpose is to protect ourselves when we’re facing danger. And one of the best ways to do this is by keeping us awake and alert. This is pretty logical — you aren’t very good at defending yourself and your loved ones when you’re sound asleep!
As long as we are awake, we can see our surroundings and be aware of potential dangers. Once we fall asleep, though, those dangers can more easily sneak up on us and harm us. As part of our stress response, we can go for days without sleep or on little sleep as a defense mechanism.
The All-Too Familiar Downside of Hyperarousal and The Stress Response
After a few nights without sleep, whether there’s a real danger or not, we start to feel the effects of chronic insomnia. It’s the “tired yet wired” situation.
You feel really tired. You want to go to sleep. Unfortunately, you body does not want you to go to sleep. Your mind is racing, and your heart is probably beating like crazy. Despite feelings of exhaustion, you are unable to get to sleep.
Your hyperarousal, although a good thing when it is needed, is causing you sheer misery when you can’t sleep… even though you want to more than anything.
As you face your insomnia, you might want to fight it and fight yourself!
You’re angry. You just want to be able to sleep. You’re exhausted. You don’t want to face this stress response when sleep is the only thing that you want. Hyperarousal is second to only sleep anxiety as one of the paradoxical causes of insomnia — meaning that the more you want it, the further away you get from having it.
And because of that paradox, there is really no one magic solution to cure it. It’s really a process your mind has to go through.
Your first step in dealing with your chronic insomnia should be realizing the cause. If it is caused by the stress response, then accept this as the cause. If you have felt these “wired” feelings — the pounding heart and racing mind — you know that that at least one of the causes of it is hyperarousal.
Now comes what might seem like a strange step. Instead of seeing this as a negative thing, your enemy that you have to fight off, you need to view the cause in a positive light as a good thing — an instinctual response with good intentions, but just misguided in the present circumstances!
As much as you want to fight it and hate your hyperarousal state, you can only start to cure your insomnia by viewing it as a positive thing. Only at that point can you again begin to welcome real sleep back into your life. Why? Because a mind and body that is fighting with itself cannot relax and let go. Acceptance is the door you must open to get back on the path to a quiet mind and a peaceful body.